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University-school partnerships driving social mobility

14 November 2017
Daniel Hurley

Dan Hurley

Programme Manager
Universities UK

​Today, Universities UK has welcomed delegates from around the country to our annual event on access and student success, where one of the topics for discussion included the ways in which universities should partner with schools to help raise pupil attainment and drive social mobility.​

Universities in England have made substantial progress in recent years ​ increasing the proportion of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education to record levels.

But they are certainly not complacent about the gaps in attainment, access and outcomes that remain between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds – the gap in the former exists before children even start school, and grows over each Key Stage.

Working collaboratively with schools was recognised by the Social Mobility Advisory Group (SMAG) as key here, and more recently universities' access agreements for 2018  19 collectively show that a significantly increased focus on work to raise attainment in schools is to come.

Cast your mind back to last December and you will remember the previous gov​ernment's schools green paper, which set out a proposal in this space asking universities to commit to sponsor or set up new schools in exchange for the ability to charge higher fees. The proposal then reappeared in the Conservative Party Manifesto 2017, but the spotlight dimmed somewhat post-election.

Universities UK, meanwhile, has always been clear that there is no one-size-fits-all way of achieving this complex ambition. Indeed, a significant strength of current university-school engagement is the flexibility that both partners have to tailor interventions and partnerships to suit the local context and need. This is also critical for building relationships, which are in turn crucial to the success of university and school collaboration.

Today, we've published a booklet that sets out some of the work that is already taking place between universities and schools across the country to raise pupil attainment, including:

  • University of Essex's VI6 programme, which brings together six schools and the university in jointly teaching eight A-level subjects that the schools would not be able to deliver themselves, to around 170 students each week – around half of whom are from a region that has some of the lowest rates of progression to university in the UK. In terms of impact, at the end of the first year, 87% of students on VI6 indicated that they would apply to university.
  • Nottingham Trent University (NTU) – Schools and Colleges Community Outreach: Within NTU's range of projects that reach around 120 schools and education providers, NTU recruits around 500 of its students each year to work in schools, particularly in those communities where progression rates to university are lower than expected. Their Students in Classrooms scheme provides pupil support for maths and literacy in the classroom, as well as one-to-one mentoring, helping to close the gap in educational achievements for children from more disadvantaged backgrounds – the scheme has reached over 30,000 pupils in its 12 years of operation.
  • Brunel University London's Urban Scholars Programme, which focuses specifically on interventions with gifted and talented students  from the London area​ in receipt of free school meals. Evidence suggests that 85% of the 201213 cohort of pupils are now studying at university.

Preserving this kind of flexibility of arrangements will be key to meeting shared objectives of raising standards across schools, removing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, and promoting student success.

Of course, this landscape also includes the school sponsorship model – which evidence suggests can be effective in some circumstances, and which government has today set out at our conference with an expectation that more universities will come forward to be involved in.

Significantly, government also told delegates today that support need not be limited to this specific form of partnership, being clear on the possible benefits of broader forms of partnership working (many of which are already taking place) ​ this is a welcome development.

With the introduction of the Office for Students approaching, whether it be the establishment of a new school; supporting subject-specific departments; the provision of teaching at A-Level; the development, enrichment and design of school curriculums; or offering CPD and other training opportunities to help develop the skills of the schoolteacher workforce, in order to maximise the contribution of university-school partnerships in the future:

  • the focus should be on ends rather than means, with great flexibility over how higher education can support schools based on local context and need, and meet the government's objectives
  • universities and their school partners need access to information on 'what works', which the Evidence & Impact Exchange (proposed by the SMAG) can support by evaluating and promoting the evidence on social mobility, and assisting the direction of future partnerships to support attainment, access and student success.

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